Madeleine Albright, a refugee from both Nazi Germany and Soviet communism who became the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of State, died on Wednesday. She was 84.
A statement from her family said the cause was cancer, and that she was surrounded by friends and family. The statement recounted Albright’s journey to public office, in which she “rose to the heights of American policy-making.” She was a “tireless champion of democracy and human rights,” her family said.
As the world rearranged itself after the Cold War, Albright was a major figure in international diplomacy as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and later his secretary of State.
“As the first woman to serve as America’s top diplomat,” President Barack Obama said when presenting her with the Medal of Freedom in 2012, “Madeleine’s courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world.”
Her approach to diplomacy was dubbed, by both admirers and critics, as the Albright Doctrine, and took to heart the notion of using U.S. might in support of both American strategic interests and moral values. In 1999, the Albright Doctrine was described by Time’s Walter Isaacson: “A tough-talking, semi-muscular interventionism that believes in using force — including limited force such as calibrated air power, if nothing heartier is possible — to back up a mix of strategic and moral objectives.”
When sworn in as secretary of State in 1997, she became the highest-ranking female government official in American history. It represented a remarkable rise over a unique path.
“It is possible to imagine a future secretary of state coming from outside the petri dish of the Foreign Service — many have,” Michael Dobbs wrote for the Washington Post in 1999. “But it is hard to conceive of another from as unusual a background as Madeleine Albright’s: escapes from Nazism and communism; a buried Jewish past; a marriage that brought her into the charmed circle of America’s elite; a divorce that spurred a new, career-driven focus to her life; and finally, the triumphant moment in January 1997.”
Or, as Albright herself put it in her 2003 book, “Madam Secretary: A Memoir”: “The idea that a daughter of Czechoslovakia born shortly before the outbreak of global war would one day become America’s first woman Secretary of State once could not have been imagined.”
Members of Congress on Wednesday remembered Albright as a “trailblazer.” Republican Sens. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Chuck Grassley of Iowa called her a “role model.” Others recalled witnessing her work in action.
“I had the pleasure of traveling with her and witnessed firsthand the respect people throughout the world had for Secretary Albright,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that she was a “dear friend” and that he would “miss her wise counsel.”
Marie Jana Korbelova was born May 15, 1937, in Prague. She was variously called Madla, Madlan and Madlenka before her study of French led her to the version of her first name that she liked, Madeleine.
In 1938, Czechoslovakia was at the epicenter of a crisis in Europe, coveted by German dictator Adolf Hitler but, in theory, protected by France and Britain. That all came to the end with the Munich Agreement, a notorious act of naivete that tried to calm Hitler by accepting his territorial demands.
Nazi Germany swallowed most of Czechoslovakia in two bites and, on March 25, 1939, 10 days after the second bite, Albright’s family fled, settling in England. During the war that followed, the emigre community in England made a film about its plight and the young Madeleine was given a starring role. In payment, she said she received “a pink stuffed rabbit” that became her beloved companion.
Raised in the Roman Catholic faith, she would learn in 1997 of her family’s decision to convert from Judaism — and that three of her grandparents left behind in Europe had perished in the Holocaust. Dobbs unearthed her family history while doing research. The discovery brought unwanted criticism down on her parents and complications for her personal sense of identity.
“I am a firm admirer of the Jewish tradition but could not — beginning at the age of 59 — feel myself fully a part of it,” she would later write of her newly found Jewish roots in “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948.”
Once the Nazis were gone from Eastern Europe, the Soviets filled the void. Albright’s family briefly returned to Czechoslovakia, but then came to the United States in 1948, settling in Colorado, where her father would teach international relations at the University of Denver. “I did everything I could to fit in, but I could not escape knowing that, in our times, even decisions made far away could spell the difference between life and death,” she wrote in “Fascism: A Warning.”
She attended Wellesley College. After graduating, she married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, from a wealthy and distinguished publishing family, and they moved to Chicago, where she got a job with Encyclopaedia Britannica. The couple had three girls (twins Anne and Alice, and then Katie), but their marriage ended in 1982 when he left her for another woman.
She became a U.S. citizen in 1957 and made her entry into the political world when she raised funds for Sen. Edmund Muskie’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1972. An event she planned at the Washington Hilton would later become something of a Watergate footnote, when it was revealed that the 200 pizzas that arrived unordered were part of Donald Segretti’s dirty tricks campaign.
Albright went on to be an aide for Muskie and in 1977 was brought into the Carter administration working for Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser. Like her, Brzezinski was an European immigrant wary of the Soviet Union; he needed her to help smooth out his rough relations with Congress.
After the Carter years, she joined the faculty at Georgetown University and served as an adviser to Democratic candidates, including MIchael Dukakis. It was during Dukakis’ failed 1988 campaign that Albright met Bill Clinton. “She was the foreign policy adviser,” he wrote later in his autobiography. “I was very impressed with her intellectual clarity and toughness and resolved to keep in touch with her.
Four years later, Clinton was elected president, and he nominated Albright to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She was smack in the middle of an uncharted time in global politics: The end of the Cold War had left it unclear what practical steps the world’s last superpower was supposed to be taking.
Smithsonian Magazine at the time, “and when we were negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, the Russian foreign minister asked, ‘Is that one of your missile interceptors you’re wearing?’ And I responded, ‘Yes. We make them very small. Let’s negotiate.’”
When presenting her with the Medal of Freedom in 2012, Obama noted her propensity for thematic jewelry: “When Saddam Hussein called her a ‘snake,’ she wore a serpent on her lapel.”
In summing up her career, Obama also shared this story: “Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, ‘Only in America can a refugee meet the Secretary of State.’ And she replied, ‘Only in America can a refugee become the Secretary of State.’”
During Donald Trump’s presidency, she kept a wary eye on what she perceived as his mishandling of just about everything.
“The course I teach at Georgetown is about the tools of foreign policy and how to use them. From what I’ve seen, the president would have a hard time passing it,” she wrote in “Fascism: A Warning.”
Myah Ward contributed to this report.